You don’t call a play Albion by accident. Mike Bartlett follows up his stonkingly good (forget about the naff TV version) smash-hit King Charles III, and his more niche, less successful, but still pretty good efforts Game and Wild, with a refined, lancing exploration of the quiet war at the heart of British society. You heard me Michael, this is STATE-OF-THE-NATION stuff. But not rubbish state-of-the-nation stuff like Common or Saint George, good state-of-the-nation stuff like Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children or everything James Graham’s ever written.
Bartlett has basically taken John of Gaunt in Richard II at his word – you know, “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” – and plonked another Eden on the Almeida stage. Fuck Kent, this is the garden of England: a square of grass and an oak tree, a symbolic patch of land, steeped in history, haunted by myths and memories, upon which Bartlett constructs a rich, absorbing tug-of-war, inflected with a deep-seated, elegiac sadness.
Albion centres on Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) a nastily wealthy, middle-aged businesswoman (she’s founded a successful chain of home furnishing stores, like Habitat or something) who’s son recently died, and died horribly, fighting overseas. Driven by loss, grief, nostalgia, and god knows what else, Audrey has sold her North London house and bought her uncle’s old country pile, a rambling Manor House, village attached, with a long-neglected garden – a garden that used to be famously lovely, a Gertrude Jekyll, Capability Brown, National Trust-type deal. Consumed with a passion to restore the property to its former glory (starting to sound familiar?), she devotes herself to it entirely, desperate to recapture the razzle-dazzle garden-party vibe she remembers from her youth. She drags her family back to the fifties. She takes back control, geddit?
But on-the-nose Brexit metaphors are just one aspect to Bartlett’s play, which crams so much into its sizeable three hours that it at times it feels overstuffed. There’s Audrey’s remaining child, her daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope), a standard Muswell Hill, internship-ready posho resentful of her mother’s sudden horticultural tendencies. There’s Audrey’s longest friend and successful novelist Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), a mercurial, mysterious presence. There’s her second husband, the amiable Paul (Nicholas Rowe) and her widowed daughter-in-law, the still-grieving Anna (Vinette Robinson). There’s the gardener, the housemaid, the Polish cleaner, the boy next door, and more. There’s lesbian love, there’s old friends falling out, there’s inter-generational strife. A whole society (well, one end of it) on stage, bickering and backstabbing like Tory grandees. Albion is basically a modern-day Evelyn Waugh novel, given the Chekhov treatment. Very Rattigan-esque.
And it’s great – that greatness that manages to be funny and sad and overpoweringly true all at the same time. Over four superbly developed and utterly involving scenes, Bartlett tracks the fallout from Audrey’s neurotic obsession with recapturing the halcyon days of yore, and unpacks a whole lot more besides, from unfussy little comments on uni tuition fees, to a glancing look at entrepreneurial immigration, to a great big slice of mother-daughter angst. His characters are so deep and detailed, so fully human, that – most of the time – his socio-political spearing feels effortless. But like the characters in a Waugh novel, or like the loudest cheerleaders on Boris’ Brexit Bus, they’re also all such unbearable aristo/nouveau-riche arseholes. Well, most of them are.
Which brings me to my one reservation, the one caveat to that state-of-the-nation fanfare: how much of the laughter ringing around the Almeida is laughter of ridicule, how much is laughter of recognition? Are we laughing at these stuck-up ladies of leisure because they’re absurdly self-absorbed, or are we laughing because, oh my god, we can’t stand it when the house-help get lippy either? I pray to god it’s the former, because if it’s the latter, Bartlett hasn’t penned a thumpingly powerful, lightly satirical portrait of Britain, he’s written an obnoxiously exclusive little tummy-tickler for Mr and Mrs Almeida. That’s not state-of-the-nation, that’s state-of-our-nation: you have to be familiar with this world to really get it.
But that qualification only surfaces occasionally, such is the captivating beauty of Rupert Goold’s season-shifting production – an understated, virtuoso combination of Miriam Buether’s grassy set, Neil Austin’s sumptuous lighting, and Gregory Clarke’s subtle sound. Also there’s a superb use of Nick Mulvey’s Cucurucu (great song, check it out) during the first scene change, which I highly approve of.
Oh, and because of Hamilton’s central performance, which is extraordinary. I don’t remember seeing such a compellingly crafted 58-year-old female character on stage ever. In Hamilton’s hands, Audrey is a highly-strung, insistently jabbering mess of raw grief and tetchy neurosis. She somehow manages to be utterly hateful yet demand unfathomable sympathy. A bit like your mum, or is that just me? She should win an Olivier. Maybe Bartlett should too.
Albion is on until 24 November 2017 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.